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Mark Knopfler was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on the 12th of August 1949. He was around seven years old when the Knopfler family moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the North-East of England. Mark attended Gosforth Grammar School. As a young boy Mark was inspired by his uncle Kingsley's harmonica and boogie-woogie piano playing. Later, in his teens, he set his heart on an all too expensive flamingo-pink Fender Strat, just like Hank Marvin's, but in the end he had to settle for a £50 twin pick-up Hofner Super Solid and £50 was a lot of money in those days. Like lots of other guitar-toting schoolboys of the 1960s, he served an early apprenticeship by forming and joining anonymous schoolboy bands and listening to guitarists such as Scotty Moore, Jimi Hendrix, Django Reinhardt and James Burton. At sixteen he made a local TV appearance as half of a harmony duo along with school-friend Sue Hercombe.
At school Mark had demonstrated a flair for English and in 1967 he went to study journalism for a year at Harlow Technical College. At the end of the course he secured a job in Leeds as a junior reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post. After two years he decided to further his studies and commenced a degree in English at Leeds University. It was whilst Mark was living in Leeds that he met a local blues singer/guitarist by the name of Steve Phillips.
Mark wrote newspaper articles and reviews on the music scene in and around Leeds. By an odd coincidence, Mark's boss was another man by the name of Stephen Phillips. This has caused some confusion over the years and a number of Steve Phillips biographies have claimed erroneously that Steve himself worked as a journalist. Mark and his boss - the other 'Steve Phillips' - went to see Steve playing in Leeds. Steve fondly recalls how Mark's first words were "Steve Phillips, meet Steve Phillips."
Steve and Mark found that musically they had much in common and they
went on to form a duo called The Duolian String Pickers. By day Mark
continued working as a reporter and, later, as a full-time student,
while Steve took a job restoring paintings and furniture at Leeds City
Art Gallery and Temple Newsam House. They played together on and off
over the next five years. Some of their work is featured on Steve's
1996 Just Pickin' album. "He was a good guitar player", Steve says
wryly of the young Knopfler, "in a B.B.King sort of way." Steve was to
have a profound affect on Mark's guitar playing introducing him to the
intricate lead technique of black blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson and
the subtle skills of country blues guitar, the elements of which Mark
was eventually to weave into his own unique style of guitar picking.
This was, in fact, a very important stage in Mark's development as a
guitarist. He was later to tell Jack Sonni that it was not until he
began to finger-pick that he found his guitar 'voice'. While living in
Leeds Mark made his first record. It was recorded in a room that had
been converted into studio in a house in Pudsey. The song was called
Summer's Coming My Way and it featured Steve Phillips on twelve-string
On graduating from Leeds University in 1973 Mark decided to go to
London and try to break into the rock scene. He scanned through the
music press and finally answered the biggest advert he could find in
Melody Maker. That led him to an audition and a two month stint with a
blues band called Brewer's Droop. Mark played guitar on three songs
they recorded at Dave Edmunds' Rockpile Studios in Wales. The band's
drummer was a guy called Pick Withers. Pick had turned professional at
the age of seventeen and was a very experienced drummer.
Having left Brewer's Droop Mark took up a job as a lecturer at
Loughton College in Essex where he remained for two years living in a
rented flat in Buckhurst Hill, sometimes giving guitar lessons at
Staples Road School. Then brother David came to stay for a few weeks en
route to London. The Knopfler brothers would often sit up late into the
night playing songs and, without knowing it, to some extent laying the
foundations of what was to become, in time, Dire Straits. It was the
mid-1970s, David moved on to London and Mark went on to form a working
band with friends at Loughton College. They called themselves the
David came to share a flat at Farrer House on Deptford's Crossfield
Estate, South-East London, with a Leicester-born bass player by the
name of John Illsley. John recalls first meeting Mark. "I'd been out
all night and came in about ten in the morning. I walked into the
kitchen, started making myself a cup of tea, walked into the lounge and
there was this guy lying on the floor with his head propped up against
a chair. He was fast asleep, fully clothed in denim with leather boots.
He had a guitar slouched over his waist." David had often spoken to
John of his guitar-playing brother and John guessed correctly that the
guy sprawled out on the lounge floor was indeed Mark.
It wasn't long before John found himself on stage with Mark. One
night the Café Racers' bass player was ill and John was asked to
stand-in. Mark and John immediately struck up a great working
relationship and both realised that, despite having built-up a good
reputation on the local pub scene, the Café Racers had a limited
future. In April 1977 Mark gave up his flat in Buckhurst Hill and moved
in with David and John.
John quickly realised that not only was Mark a talented and
excitingly different guitar player, he was also a gifted song-writer.
During the summer of 1977 the three musicians found themselves playing
and rehearsing Mark's songs. Yet, something was missing - a drummer.
Mark, recalling his brief stint with Brewer's Droop, said he knew of a
drummer who would be ideal for the sort of music they were developing.
Mark had been very impresssed with Pick Withers back in 1973 and so
Pick was invited to the Farrer House flat and the four musicians began
doing gigs together under the name of Mark's old band, the Café
John recalled that "playing with Pick Withers was fantastic...I'd
never played with anybody as good as him." Later, a friend of Pick's
suggested a new name for the band - Dire Straits. The die was cast. The
band's first gig took place on the open space at the back of the Farrer
House flats, the electricty provided by a power cable running from the
stage into a socket on the wall of John's first floor flat.
Punishing rehearsals and live gigs followed. There was just enough
room in the back of John's estate car for the band's equipment and they
earned just enough money to pay for PA hire and a round of beers. On
the 27th of July 1977 Dire Straits recorded the now famous demo tapes
of five songs - Wild West End, Sultans of Swing, Down To The Waterline,
Sacred Loving and Water of Love. In what was probably October they
recorded Southbound Again, In The Gallery and Six Blade Knife for BBC
Radio London and, finally, on the 9th of November demo tapes were made
of Setting Me Up, Eastbound Train and Real Girl.
Many of these songs reflected Mark's experiences in Newcastle, Leeds
and London, and were to be featured on the first Dire Straits album the
following year: Down To The Waterline recalled images of life in
Newcastle; In The Gallery is a tribute to a Leeds sculptor/artist named
Harry Phillips, father of Steve; and, Lions, Wild West End and
Eastbound Train were all drawn from Mark's early days in the capital.
The demo tapes were given to BBC Radio London DJ Charlie Gillett.
Charlie played the tapes calling upon record company executives to sign
this new band: enter John Stainze and Ed Bicknell. It is said that
Phonogram A&R man Stainze was in the shower listening to the radio
when he first heard Dire Straits. A few weeks later he signed the band
to Phonogram's Vertigo label and Mark secured a publishing deal with
Rondor Music. Towards the end of 1977 Ed Bicknell was working at the
NEMS agency when he got a call from Stainze asking him to fix up some
gigs for Dire Straits. Ed was invited round to Phonogram's offices in
December where he heard the Charlie Gillett demo tapes. He was then
taken to Dingwalls Club in North London to meet Dire Straits. The date
was the 13th of December, 1977, and as he walked into the club they
were playing Down To The Waterline. Ed recalls, "The first thing I
noticed was that it wasn't necessary to stand at the back of the room;
they were very quiet.
I'd just done The Ramones, who were deafening... The second thing I
noticed was that Mark was playing a red Stratocaster, which immediately
made me think of Hank Marvin, who I had idolised in the sixties." After
hearing two or three numbers Ed decided that he wanted to manage the
band. He was organising a tour for Talking Heads and was able to put
his new band on the bill as the support act. Dire Straits were paid
£50 per night for the Talking Heads tour; a ten-fold increase
from their fee at Dingwalls. The rest - as is often said - is history.
I once asked Ed Bicknell's former assistant, Liz Whatley, when it
was that she realised Dire Straits were going to be really big. She
replied that it was the first time she heard Romeo and Juliet. By the
mid-1980s Dire Straits had released Brothers in Arms, one of the best
selling albums of all time, and had been tagged 'the biggest band in
the world'. By that stage the recording and touring personnel of the
band had changed more than once. David left.
Hal Lindes, guitar, and Alan Clark, keyboards, joined. Then came
Tommy Mandel, keyboards, and Mel Collins, saxophone. Pick left and was
replaced on drums by Terry Williams. Keyboard player Guy Fletcher
became a member of Dire Straits for the Brothers In Arms album. Jack
Sonni, guitar, and Chris White, saxophone, were brought in for the
subsequent world tour. By the time Dire Straits commenced the 1991/92
On Every Street tour Mark, John, Alan, Guy and Chris were left from the
mid-80s line-up. They were joined on stage by Phil Palmer, guitar, Paul
Franklin, pedal-steel guitar, and percussionists Danny Cummings and
Chris Whitten. Others who have been featured on Dire Straits'
recordings include Roy Bittan, keyboards, and Joop De Korte, drums.
The Brothers In Arms tour
saw Dire Straits play 234 shows in twelve months to combined audiences
of about 2.5 million. Within a couple of weeks of the tour finishing
Mark was producing Tina Turner but, at the same time, felt he needed to
get back to his roots. Long-time mates Steve Phillips and Brendan
Croker had teamed-up to form a duo shortly after Mark had left Leeds in
1973. In 1986 Steve was in London and called in to see Mark who said he
fancied coming up to Leeds and sitting in with Steve and Brendan on one
of their gigs. This resulted in the three of them playing together at
The Grove pub in Hunslet, Leeds, on the 31st of May, 1986. The
following year Mark offered to produce Steve's next album but Steve
suggested that a new album should feature both himself and Brendan. Guy
Fletcher was brought in to help out on the technical side. From this
evolved the Notting Hillbillies.
Ed Bicknell is an accomplished drummer in his own right and during a
meal in a Notting Hill wine bar, Mark sat next to him and said "OK, Ed;
we've formed a band, and you're the drummer." Paul Franklin joined on
pedal-steel guitar. There followed an extensive UK tour to promote the
1990 release of the multi-platinum selling album
Missing... Presumed having A Good Time. Also in 1990 Mark was able
to release the Neck and Neck album, a joint project with the greatly
admired Chet Atkins.
Mark brought Dire Straits back together for the 1988 Nelson Mandela
70th Birthday Concert which featured Eric Clapton who was standing-in
for Jack Sonni as Jack had just become the father of twin girls. Mark,
John, Alan and Guy appeared on stage at Knebworth in June 1990 along
with, among others, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Ray Cooper and Phil
Palmer, to help raise funds for the Nordoff Robbins charity. Then came
the On Every Street album. The resulting extensive world tour, which
played to more than four million people, was punishing and exhausting.
After it was over Mark felt that he needed to take a break from the
pressures of live performance and studio schedules.
In 1996 Mark began his career as a solo performer with the release
of the Golden Heart album. The album was simply a step forward in the
evolution of his music, "It's just moving forwards...", he said,
"...Just trying to be better." In addition, he has scored the music to
a number of films. First came Local Hero in 1983 followed in 1984 by
the Cal and the Comfort and Joy soundtracks. These were followed in
1987 by The Princess Bride and two years later came Last Exit To
Brooklyn. Further soundtrack work has seen the release of Metroland and
Wag The Dog both of 1998. Mark's second solo album, Sailing To
Philadelphia, was released in September 2000. His soundtrack album to
the film A Shot At Glory is due for release in the not too distant
future. To date, Mark Knopfler/Dire Straits have sold millions of
singles and over 105 million albums.
Over the years Mark has collaborated with many artists. He has at
one time or other worked with people such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison,
Randy Newman, Buddy Guy, Tina Turner, Phil Lynott, Willy DeVille, Eric
Clapton, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, Phil Everly, Vince Gill, Paul
Franklin, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Paul Brady, The Chieftains, Ben. E.
King, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Joan Armatrading, Scott Walker, Jeff
Healey, The Judds, Jimmy Nail, Bryan Ferry, Aztec Camera, Steely Dan,
Sting, Sonny Landreth, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and
He has also devoted a great deal of time to charity work for
institutions large and small. Dire Straits did a total of three
concerts for the Prince's Trust in front of Prince Charles and Diana,
Princess of Wales. They appeared at the 1985 Live Aid Concert and the
1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert. In 1995 Mark was featured on
the chart-topping Dunblane single Knockin' On Heaven's Door and in
September 1997 was one of the artists who performed for Sir George
Martin's Music For Montserrat Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The
Notting Hillbillies, too, have performed many charity concerts helping
to raise money for a range of deserving causes. Mark has been the
recipient of countless awards and accolades, not least among which was
the conferring in May 1993 of an Honorary Music Degree by Newcastle
University of which he is justly proud.
Mark Knopfler has always been a songster, to him the song is king.
It is said that he has never really understood why his music is so
popular. In this he is not alone. When reviewing the Sultans of Swing
compilation album in November 1998, the writers of Mojo magazine
commented "overwhelming sales testify to Mark Knopfler's song-writing
ability and guitar expertise, and there is certainly something intimate
and friendly in that smokey voice and fluid guitar, though the scale of
Dire Straits' success remains mildly baffling." Some have tried to
answer this by arguing that Mark's music has an instant appeal. Perhaps
a better explanation comes in Robert Sandall's liner essay for the
Sultans of Swing compilation.
Sandall noted, "As the fires of punk raged around them, they made no
secret of their love for styles of music which the cultural commissars
of the day had recently declared irrelevant....What part could this lot
possibly play in the brave new world of anarchy, media manipulation and
anti-musicianship? Apart from their consummate skill as performers, it
was their complete disregard for all the fashionable nonsenses of the
moment that rescued Dire Straits from the fate which swiftly overtook
most of their punky contemporaries. While others lived and died in a
blaze of publicity and disappointing record sales, they took the world
by stealth....Dire Straits were, above all, superb communicators....
The heartfelt simplicity of their music - chiefly derived from Mark
Knopfler's gruff vocals and elegantly burnished Fender guitar tone -
came across in songs that sounded both fresh and timeless, and which
also possessed a breathtaking accuracy."
There is another side to Mark Knopfler, a very private side. By the mid-80s Mark was being referred to by some as the "quiet man of rock and roll." He is shy by nature and gets embarrassed when fans tell him how much they have been affected by his songs and how his music has changed their lives. It is a matter of public record that Mark has been married three times. His second marriage produced his twin sons, Benji and Joseph, born in 1987, and more recently his third marriage to Kitty Aldridge has been blessed with a daughter, Isabella, born in 1998. After more than twenty years at the top of his profession, Mark Knopfler is now a family man who loves to spend time with his wife and his children.
TERRY KILBURN, 12/03/99. UPDATED, 27/09/2000. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. APPROVED BY: MARK KNOPFLER
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